I recently wrote a piece of advice to a bullied postdoc that made me sad.

Abbreviated, original here,

"It is unlikely you can fight this culture, and academic settings have practically no good ways to address bullying of this nature. If you find what seems to be one, look for evidence that it has worked for past students. Recently. Your best strategy? Leave. Keep your head down, and start planning your exit now."

I personally have seen no post PhD success stories that include bullies being stood up to and punished by the system, AND the individuals bullied subsuquently moving forward in their academic careers. I facilitated a conversation with a dozen colleges last night which kept that total. Zero. We all work with different highly ranked R1 universities in the northeast. Between us, we have worked within over 30 US universities. We agreed that bullies inhabit different roles in academia than in industry and government settings. We also agreed that the topic of bullies is more taboo in post-doctoral academic settings than in upper echelon government and industry settings.

Two questions we think are key:

What unique aspects of post- PhD academic culture allow bullies to persist?

What can be done to end this?

closed as primarily opinion-based by Bryan Krause, Anyon, Azor Ahai, scaaahu, Ben Feb 6 at 8:18

Many good questions generate some degree of opinion based on expert experience, but answers to this question will tend to be almost entirely based on opinions, rather than facts, references, or specific expertise. If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

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    I suspect the contrast with industry is simply a matter of your personal experience. Check out Workplace.SE and you'll find bullies aren't something special to Academia. That said, I don't really feel this question is anything but a rant and prompt for discussion, which makes it not a great SE question even if it's an important issue. – Bryan Krause Feb 6 at 0:19
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    Academia is very different from one place to another - where have you experienced this? – Dmitry Savostyanov Feb 6 at 1:13
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    I have never worked with any "bullies." Some people that never answer their email, but no bullies. It's not really "a paradise." – Azor Ahai Feb 6 at 2:14
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    This stands in contrast to my experience with industry, where "no brilliant assholes" has made its mark: bullies in companies are generally dealt with when identified. Then your experience must be different from mine. I'd been there for decades, lots of bullies. – scaaahu Feb 6 at 3:06
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    @Monkia The place to raise those concerns is on Meta rather than a comment thread. – Bryan Krause Feb 6 at 15:44

I'm not sure that I accept your premise that "academia is paradise for bullies". There are bullies in academia, but also there are bullies elsewhere.

Nevertheless, we can meaningfully ask if there are any dynamics in academia which may help bullies prosper. I can think of two particular ones:

  1. Some parts of academia have a culture of tolerating and in some cases venerating "the brilliant asshole", i.e. the arrogant academic who routinely belittles and harangues students and junior researchers but we all go along because they've done some really important work in their field. Your question hints at this and user104075's answer kind of exemplifies it. This attitude can lead people who should really be seeking to prevent bullying to shrug it off with a "but that's just who he is".

  2. Strong disparity in job security between the people at the top and bottom of the ladder, perhaps more so than in other professions. Postdocs are constantly, painfully, aware, that their contract will be up soon, and you need to get some papers, and there are hundreds of applicants to every faculty position etc etc. This makes junior researchers wary of leaving a position, even if it is terrible, and extra nervous of not getting a good recommendation letter from their present supervisor. I have heard of academics boasting of keeping their postdocs on short contracts, so that they can use the threat of not renewing it to get their postdocs to work unreasonable hours. On the other hand, in some places, a tenured professor is virtually unfireable, short of outright academic fraud or serious criminality. So while the person on the end of the bullying faces huge risks from making a fuss, the bully may not face much consequence even if it does come out.

What can be done to mitigate these?

  • Use the wellbeing of an academic's students and postdocs as a criterion on which to evaluate them for funding and tenure

  • Better job security for postdocs - i.e. work towards a norm of longer contracts where possible. If this means that there are fewer postdocs, but they work under better conditions, I think that would be reasonable. Others will disagree.

  • Universities can implement robust anti-bullying policies with meaningful sanctions against academics who violate them.

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